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Death's Blood Ch. Six: Inside The Smoke

Six: Inside the Smoke


    (I knew just what my mother and Clement would say when I wanted to help Gaston. I was tempted to take the butcher knife and storm in that house, to stab the man attacking him. I was smart enough to know that no pup was to be treated like that. No one would ever lay their hands on a pup in anything but affectionately.
(I went the second half of the school day, carrying more coin than I needed. I had become a spy already, and was making more from it in addition to the pickpocketing. All that I wanted was to get out of this place for a better one, but this felt more important.
(When walking home from school with Gaston as usual by the end of the day, I presented the stack of coins that I’d been carrying, telling him, “This’s fer you.”
(“Really?” he asked, gobsmacked. He suddenly turned grim, adding, “I can’t accept that money.”
(“But I insist”, I objected. “I was afraid you were eating less than I do.”
(“I appreciate it, but…” It had to have something about the man he called “Papa”. I silently insisted by lifting my arm slightly. So, the pup gave in. Gaston slowly took the coins in hand.
(I added, “Please, don’t look back.” I then headed quickly toward my house. We were already a fair distance. Once that was done, I needed something to get that off my mind. The examination was near. So, I asked my mother if she could help me study.)
----- 

    I have barely rested, following the burning of another brothel, another place of oppression. I already keep a souvenir from my escapade in my suitcase, but that is to wait. I regret the choice to not accompany the young cat Holly on the train, but I have put my business first. I still have money to afford to stay in town, but where I go has its slums as much as any place. Again, I can feel the desperation of every living being around me, but I can only heed so many pleas for help, even from the pair of kittens that I pass, begging, “Please, just a few coins. We’re starving.”
And this is only in the area of houses made of wooden planks, with only the occasional sign of some beating. According to Jack, Ashcrown is a breeding ground for criminals. The time to see that for myself has come. And there is no better place for proof than in its poorer areas. No one seems to mind the she-wolf with the eyepatch, carrying a suitcase as well as a purse. The beggars are not the only source of noise in the rundown part of town. I hear pairs of strangers arguing about the petty things. I hear threats to beat or maim. I hear harassments about overdue payments, which apparently a landlord takes pleasure in.
Not the same landlord, but I ask one, a grey wolf, “Can you point me to an inn?”
He answers, “Aye.” Pointing, he continues, “To the east. Place colled Lockhart Pines. It’s also a pub.”
“Cheers”, I respond. It cannot be hard to miss if people here can read, as I pay attention to the signs, and before long, I find it. As a building of beige bricks, it is hard to miss among several wooden constructs. However, its sign looks dilapidated, the edges have taken bullets or hammers—maybe both—and one window on the front is broken.

I walk inside the inn, finding the wooden walls painted white. A ragged-looking coyote occupies the beaten desk, and asks, “A room, Ma’am?”
“Please”, I answer.
The coyote, wearing a white shirt, brown slacks, and a green vest, turns away, to take a key, and hands it to me, the number painted on it. He tells me, “We charge three pounds per night. We’ve only one loo and one kitchen.” The mention of the loo reminds of the previous time I’ve bathed. I already give off an odour, but that’s unimportant right now. I thank the coyote and head in the hall next to the desk as the room given to me is on the same floor. The hall is given ridiculously flashy wallpaper, which has no sign of peeling, but many scratches.
The room that I am given hasn’t the broken window, as I see, and the room is just enough space for me to eat, this time at a rectangular table, which has some kinds of crust on its counter, the bed having a wooden frame, but no headboard. I sit down, to test its sturdiness, and I am confident that the frame and mattress will support my weight. There is no table next to the bed, but there is a wardrobe standing out among pale-pink walls.

“Ross Samuels. Great Gam. He is known as a manufacturer in Giffard’s massive opium cartel. Like the many who run factories, he uses children to do his dirty work. Another big member of Giffard’s inner circle—or should I say two—contact Samuels on when child slaves are open for him. However, he has his own agents to separate children from their parents, mainly rodents. The factory run by Samuels has been masqueraded as a steel mill, and it was that before Giffard bought it. It still has the original name: Malleo and Company.”
The note ends with the mention of the owner of one Jack’s pubs. No longer having my eyepatch on and wearing only my white shirt and grey slacks, I open the window, and howl lyrically out, nose pointing to the sky. I need only wait a few seconds before I hear the flapping of a pair of wings, and then I back up. There the raven is, cocking his head, his pale-green eyes glistening in the daylight.
“Michibiku”, I whisper to him.
----- 

    Clad in my navy-blue suit, my brown vest, and having my golden mask on, I head to the pub called Knight of Clovich, guided by my raven friend, two rolls and a chop in my hands. I am armed; one cannot be too sure. I get curious looks my way, probably that I look up more than I look ahead.
Upon hearing the raven caw, I break into a run, seeing the pub, which is made of wood, having glass windows, and the name is shaped from wood on the green-shingled roof. I enter, getting more of curious looks from others, and I approach the bar counter, asking the bartender, a well-groomed brown rabbit, to have the chop cooked for me along with bell pepper.
About fifteen minutes later, I get that meat on a platter and ask for a pint of Kabal Kane Ale, which the barman gladly hands me. After finishing my lunch, I take a look around the place. The pub has the scum of the borough. I recognise an otter wearing glasses, who I know to be a smuggler that I have no qualms with. No one else I recognise, who seek a quarrel with Lady Death. Having paid the barman, I look to the end of the counter, taking interest in a deer scowling at me. I approach him.
When only a centimetre away from him, I say, “Tell yer boss, Lady Death wants t-see ‘im.”
The deer leans to the side, and then to the other, before scowling at me again, and answering, “Only fer the sake of peace in ‘ere.” He turns around, leading me to the short and narrow hall. He knocks twice on the door, before opening it, not waiting for an answer.

I am gobsmacked at the comparison of this office to that of Jack at the Queen o’ Clubs. The floorboards, I can tell, are filthy from gathering dust and scum. The walls are plain, save for a personal liquor cabinet, a safe, and a small bookcase. At the plain desk, is a rottweiler. I can tell by his black fur, his flap-like ears, and his brown chin. This dog is dressed in a blue pinstripe suit over a white work shirt. He grins and stands up, commenting, “Well if it ain’t Lady Death.”
I reply, “I can guess where you’ve ‘eard stories about me, but I came t-you only ta talk.”
His smile seems to disappear, and he only seems to freeze. He looks down for a moment, and then shoots his muzzle back toward me. He then says, “Leave us.” I hear the stag walk out the door, closing it behind him. He speaks a moment later. “Marius Dolan.” He extends his arm, and pauses. After awkwardly lowering his arm, he adds, “What’re yeh wai-in for? Come over ‘ere.” I reluctantly advance to the desk, but I don’t sit down like he does. Still a little nervous at the sight of me, he asks, “How shall I entertain the self-proclaimed embodiment of death?”
I pull out a page, one of the letters that I have, but show the back of it, on which a mark is drawn. I state, “MacNiadh tells me, you’ve information that may help me.”
The rottweiler scowls at me, replying, “I know this symbol as well as any shady dealer. It is a crest: the ‘ouse of Lowell.”
I say plainly, “Jack thinks that I am mad to pursue Giffard Lowell.”
Dolan barks, “He might be right. Anything can cause an outburst from that fiery sod.”
I finally sit in the dusty seat of the plain wooden chair, which is surprisingly stable, and request, “Turn the page over.” Dolan reluctantly does so, to know the message that I’ve drawn on the back of. I add, “MacNiadh informed me that you’ve knowledge of one Ross Samuels. Whatever he knows, he’d either no time or space in the notes that he gave me.”
I can just tell that his expression goes grim. Dolan gets up slowly from his chair, and heads to his bookcase. He returns to his desk barely two seconds later, sitting down with two long and thin boxes, which he separates. He states, “There is no way one can’t compare an opiate to poison.” He opens the smaller box, and I see what he means, for he reveals a black spider with a red hourglass on its back, and very long legs. Dolan then goes into an explanation. “A long time ago, I was in the subtropics, among… shall we say, aggressive merchants. I saw ra lo’ o’ bloodshed in me time there. I am all too familiar with what the venom from a Black Widow spider can do t-you. There was a breeder interested. So, I bought one o’ them, knowing of its venom. I relied on only ‘er to guard my wares. Eventually, I found a part of culture that I wanted to take ‘ome.” He opens the wider box and lifts the item from it. It looks like a knife, except the blade is angled, and I instinctively look down at the hilt of my left Khopesh. I stand up, drawing from my left scabbard with my left hand, and compare the hooked blade to the bent blade, awestruck.
Calm despite my gesture, Dolan states, “It is colled a Kukri.” I sheathe my Khopesh. As I sit down, he adds, “It is either tradition or superstition that when a Kukri is brought to a battlefield, it must taste an enemy’s blood.”
“And this one tasted blood?”
Setting it on the counter, Dolan returns to explanation. “I was not much of an experienced fighter then. So, I had an idea. I relied on the Black Widows, but not to bite. They all died, except the one I kept with my wares, from someone I paid to extract the venom, and I laced this blade with it.” He taps the hilt at the end of that statement. “Where I was stationed, I supplied gunpowder and bullets, and those people were desperate. So, I did what no one would have guessed: I infiltrated a hideout, and used the venom-laced Kukri to leave cuts in the enemy soldiers, but I repeatedly stabbed the captain. All of them in their sleep.
“I heard from informants the day after, that the captain was reported dead, and the soldiers on duty were incapacitated. The men I worked for, seized that chance, and it was a slaughter. I was tempted to throw this Kukri in the sea, but I keep it as a reminder. I had my security spider stuffed when she died, and abandoned the military for Jack.”

I take in that story, but only for a moment. “I’m familiar with scorpion venom. I know that their venom can make one ill, cause a searing fever. It is only lethal to the young and the elderly.”
“Same with Black Widow venom. It causes illness, but it can cause muscle paralysis, leading to breathing problems.” Dolan places the Kukri and the glass case of the spider back in their boxes and closes them. “As you know that opiates may be effective on pain, they can be terribly addictive if taken more than once.”
I state, “Jack told me that Samuels relies on only children for ‘is dirty work.”
Dolan folds his arms and explains, “He’s right about that. Workers are easiest to make docile if you’ve children operating the equipment. I believe the stories of all that tedium breaking one’s spirit, and no one takes it harder than children. As you know that vermin ‘ave a nasty ‘abit o’ multiplying, they’re perfect to be made slaves. I’ve seen depression on the faces of parents ‘aving fallen fer lies that the rat pups would never go hungry again.”
I interrupt, “And how do you know all this?”
“Words of a child”, he answers bluntly. “Children see a lo’ o’ shit. So, it’s ‘ard t-not believe them. I’ve a li-ul rabbit, leadin’ me small network of informants, consisting of other children. They can absorb information like a sponge. And when child slaves are suddenly homeless, they’ve nothin’ t-lose.”
I inquire, “What know they of Malleo and Company?”
“That the fumes of what they are forced to mix compares to venom. It ‘tames’ them, but I believe that the smoke would cause early death. Because of opium fumes, all that they can do is follow orders, as if they have forgotten even animal instincts.” He looks down sadly as he continues, “The children work the equipment all day, and what food they are given is only scraps of what the guards and their foreman, Samuels, ate that day. Even worse, his agents, very loyal puppets of ‘is, either wrench those children away in front of their parents and others—police unable to keep up—or they deceive the parents into ‘anding their children over, fer money that no one would get.” Noting my scowl and that I fume as I breathe, the rottweiler adds, “It gets worse: they operate even when the sun is down. If yeh don’ believe me, go in after dinner and yeh’ll see.”
I start to pace as I speak, “They need be away from the machines and as far away from the factory as possible. But if I make the mixing stop first, the guards will be alerted.”
I stop and focus on the dog, the second I hear Dolan’s voice. “The building ‘as three floors, but only one bell, and anyone entering a factory that is no worker or guard is a trespasser. The boilers are ‘ow the fumes carry, the top floor gettin’ the worst of it. The stirring is left to levers an’ labour.”
I sigh, but from a thought, which I give Dolan: “I kin spring them from that prison, but where kin they go?”
Dolan offers, “Me men will ‘elp yeh. They wait outside the front doors whilst yeh do what yeh go fer.”
“So willingly?” I question.
“I know as well as you do”, Dolan answers nonchalantly, leaning back. “MacNiadh is Giffard’s best-known, if not greatest, rival. Takin’ out Giffard’s head of opium manufacturing is a win fer me boss.”
“Loyal dog, I see”, I quip coldly.
And he chuckles at that. Dolan then states, “I’ll send some-a me best brutes an’ gunners t-follow yeh from an ‘ouse beneath the train track in the borough’s easternmost area. That’s one-a the slums.”
“You’ll know when I finish”, I tell him plainly. That’s when I head out the door, but when I depart from the pub, where I head is not straight to the factory.
----- 

    In the same nice part of the borough, I find a chapel that I could use for picking up my suit and my weapons, and that’s where I’m changed into my grey pinstripe suit and I have my eyepatch. Through my exploration, I hear a woman shout, “Oi! That’s not yours! Thief!” From round the bend, I see a bulldog running, and right toward me. I follow the instinct to stop him. Upon meeting the bulldog, I punch him squarely in the snout, and he stumbles backwards. I spot a bronze chain carrying a deep-blue stone in a frame of the same bronze, standing out among his dusty-brown suit and no shirt under the jacket. I pick the bauble up, along with a pouch. Another dog, with the same voice that I’ve heard, speaks, “Oh, you stopped ‘im. Thank you.” I gently place the necklace in her hand. That dog is a husky in a striped business dress. She repeats, “Thank you. This is one of me favourites.” I walk by, and I hear a grunt, probably a swift kick from the husky.

Where I head next is not so far away, and a reasonable distance from the church. I decide it to be where I satisfy a personal need. My raven friend perches upon my shoulder as I stand outside that building, and I tell him, “Yasumase.” He lifts off again before I even begin walking again. This place has a simple name: Bright Nancy’s. The owner affords the luxury to have the letters as bricks brought together, and painted white. The building itself is not so shabby, either, being built of both bricks and wood.
Upon entering, I see that the place is decent, as there is someone practicing a harpsichord on a stage opposite the doorway, a few patrons paying attention to it, many of the tables occupied for this time of day among the wooden walls and floorboards. I head to the bar, which is to the left from entering, greeted by a squirrel looking slender and clad in a blue business dress. She asks kindly, “Can I ‘elp yeh, Ma’am?”
I ask back, “Is there anyone available for a private session?”
“Just one”, she answers. She points past me. “That cat.” The cat is the one practicing the harpsicord on the stage, and he wears a hemmed work shirt with suspenders for black work pants. His fur is grey.
After taking in his appearance, I turn back to the squirrel, commenting, “I did not expect a male courtesan.”
“Almost no one does”, she scoffs. She adds, “That’s David. He tries to do a lot here when his day of sex is slow.” I scowl at the vulgarity that I take.
I turn to the cat again, before I turn back to the squirrel, telling her, “D-yeh know ‘ow much”-
She interrupts, “An ‘undred pounds.”
“Let your boss know, I’ll ‘ave ‘im.”
The squirrel heads to the far side of the bar, to use some kind of pulley. The owner even had the luxury of gears and chains. I turn around, and the second I do, I see the cat get up from the bench, and he heads toward me. He’s handsome with his yellow-green eyes, his fur neat. I tell him, “I came for a courting session.”
He shrugs and answers, “As you wish. Follow me.” I comply, going with him to the hall, which splits, and he takes me to the left side, and then to the end of the line.

The cat tells me, “This is my room.” Green and pale-pink wallpaper taking up the walls disgusts me, and makes an awful combination with the burgundy finish on the plain headboard of the bed, which has worn-out blankets and pillows. The wardrobe looks dirty and the plain nightstand has not even candlestick. He then adds, “So, whot does the lady ask of me, David?”
I reply, “The lady wishes only for courting followed by a cuddle.”
“Yes, Ma’am”, David responds, clearly unenthusiastic about it, and yet he makes himself look eager, based on how fast he takes off his clothes.
David is slow with undressing me, taking the time to go back and forth, hanging up my blazer and then my shirt. He doesn’t even give me foreplay when he unfastens my belt and my pants, which he hangs up as well. However, he leaves my corset as a pile on the floor before he guides me to his bed. He then asks, “How d-yeh wish t-proceed?”
“Like this”, I answer, moving his hands to my breasts. As I lay on my back, he cups them and plays with them, nuzzling into me, but he’s not purring at all. I lift my head, to see that he’s barely aroused, if at all. All that he does is massage my breasts and his nuzzling ends as he eventually explores my body with his hands. He massages my abdomen and my buttocks, alternating, and grinds against my nether regions. I can feel it; he has a problem doing this, not just because someone of his position does this, many times each day.
As much I enjoy the massage with his fingers, I see that it must reach its climax eventually. I “guide” one of his paws to my nether regions. Heeding the silent order, he lifts his hand, and his fingers, then slick, enter me. He explores the inside with his fingers, until he pulls out, and I feel his rough tongue enter me, though I hear him groaning. It puts me off as much as the adrenaline builds. All too soon, his member enters me. I’ve experienced a man in me before, and it has never been like this.
He still tries to harden inside me, and I feel my loins burn until I explode on him. That’s when he pulls out. I see that his member is not fully erect and he didn’t have his orgasm. I inquire, “Is there a rule here against releasing yer seed?”
The cat answers irritably, “Nay. And I am tryin’.”
“Let me ‘elp, then.” Before he can object, I have a paw on his member. He still barely hardens, if at all, as I massage with one hand, but something is wrong still. David has his muzzle pointing upward, his eyes closed as he moans, until I feel my hand warming. I see that David has reached his orgasm, but it’s not the climax that either of us expected. It’s a wonder he’s managed to enable my orgasm.
After licking up his seed, I tell him lowly, “Come ‘ere.” I bring David in a cuddle as I requested. Suddenly, he looks as if he could cry from the disappointment, as I see when bringing him in my arms (I’m bigger than him). I then inquire, “So, what was the problem?”
“I wasn’t up to it”, he mutters.
“No shit”, I comment. “We do a lot that we’re not up to.”
David sighs before he looks up and confesses, “I’m never up to sex with women…” He pauses as if he expects a comment, but he then continues, “You’d think that it’s disenchantment from me ‘eart breakin’ one too many times, but the truth is what I am. And there are too few willing to confess it and embrace it. I have long since accepted it, but it didn’t change me life fer the be-ur.”
I state, “I’m aware of the brothels with homosexuality as their theme.”
David chooses to be snide, his response being, “There’s none of those in Knightsedge or Tolden.”
The mention of Knightsedge makes me wonder if that’s where David is from, as I sense an aristocratic tone in his speech. I tell him, “I come to brothels mainly to sate my lust like mos’ do. And I know fer a fact that this is an honest brothel, knowing that it’s not used as a drug cache.”
David asks, “What about those that are part of drug operations?” I choose not to answer. So, he adds, “Sorry. I don’ mean t-pry.” He begins to stroke the white tuft below my grey neck, and then stroke through the black fur of my chest.
“Prying is an ‘abit of mine, though… If yeh can’t fully satisfy a woman, why d-you still work here?”
The cat sighs, “Because I do almost all other menial jobs t-make up fer it. And I wonder if the Madame pities me too much to evict me.” He continues stroking the fur of my chest and abdomen, which feels nice. “What about you? How d-you get by?”
“I kill people”, I admit.
He breathes, “I may ‘ave guessed.” He looks up at me as he strokes my fur, clearly focused on the patch on my right eye. Eyepatches are for those who have lost an eye, or for former sailors so used to them. “How long have you bin doin’ it?”
“Three years”, I answer plainly. That is true. “I’ve killed criminals. More than y-think.” David is quiet, but he still strokes my fur, slowly moving his hand up and down my chest and abdomen, as if he’s curious about what scars I might or might not have. I look down at him, telling him, “I know that you mean well, Cat, but I’ve my own business t-deal with.” I lick his nose and slowly get up from the bed. Not looking back, I ask, “Did your boss afford the luxury of a bathhouse, as well?”
“Downstairs”, the cat answers. “I should lead you.” I heed that piece of advice. I take my pants from the hanger in his open wardrobe, so I can leave my money for him on his nightstand.

The bathhouse is nicer than the rest of the brothel as the walls are all bricks and cement, and there are several tubs, their faucets attached to the same boiler suspended above, which David turns on for me. He wants to make my time with him worth the charge, for he offers to clean me up, and I don’t refuse the offer. I don’t even know until after he finishes rinsing me off that he’s brought my suit along, including the corset.
Upon getting dressed again, I tell the cat, “I like you. I’ll come back fer you.” I hear him sigh as he watches me exit the bathhouse. I plan to see more of the borough before heading the fake mill.
----- 

    (“What is this place?” I asked my mother when we entered the first construct that I’d seen, larger than fifteen houses brought together.
(She chuckled, “This is the Tenebra Angela Concert Hall.” She and Clement led me to the stairs covered by red velvet like the rest of the floor from the front gates. Where I am led is to the top, and most distant from the stage. It was made apparent that at this time of year, there were full houses for plays and symphonies. We were here for the latter.
(By the time I saw a feline in a black suit, a white vest, a white shirt, and a white bowtie, the crowd quieted. That man waited until everyone was quiet, as if his sternness told them to. I couldn’t thank him enough for making the noise die down. He turned around, opening some kind of book, and the bright-red curtain drew back, revealing an array of felines and canines in suits prepared to play their instruments, as well as a smaller array behind them, in robes that were their uniform. I could hear the tap, before that feline began a series of gestures, and the instruments played as if he controlled the players. That was the first part of this to fascinate me.
(I felt as if something triggered inside me. I had my arms propped on the railing as I listened intently to the dramatic overture. No doubt my mother and Clement stayed close, making sure that I wouldn’t fall over. I just stood there, taking in the instruments sounding in unison to create something to pull me in, and I created a moment in my head, the music inspiring my imagination.
(Eventually, I sat down as my feet hurt, but I still listened intently, my back arched, my elbows propped on my legs. I still stayed on the balcony during the intermission, and we stayed for the rest of the performance, the symphony ending with melancholy, but it was something that I wanted to remember for years to come.)
----- 

    This factory is as much of a place of oppression as any factory. I have heard of unfair treatment of workers in places such as this, but this may be the worst if it relies only on kidnapped children to make into mindless slaves. It looks as normal as any place of manual labour. The construct stands out among dilapidated houses as this building is of bricks and stone. However, I hesitate to head inside, having been informed of the fumes of the drug carrying, not thinking that the fact is incorrect.
I hear someone approach from behind and ask, “Wai-in’ fer some miracle?” I instinctively turn my head, showing my face concealed by my golden mask, and I find various canines in business suits having arrived. “S’ all righ’ if yeh’re nervous, Love”, the same voice adds.
I sigh before confessing, “I know me onions about conditions of factories, but not enough.”
Another canine tells me, “We’ll be righ’ be-ind you. Yeh need other sets of eyes out ‘ere whilst yeh do yer thing, and a group to escort the children t-safety.”
I examine the wall of the main entrance, which is open, before stating plainly, “I’ll improvise a signal fer you to begin your part.” I then head straight to the open entry gate, the lights of its fires and the smoking standing out in the night sky.

The sounds of the steam hissing, the gears and chains rattling, and the crackling of the fires were their loudest upon walking inside, and the ground is all rocks and dirt on this level. Two hulking metal contraptions carry up to the building’s third level, and from here as I look up, the fumes are visible. I head to the machine on my left, which has a lot of support from a large cube. It has an open and narrow pipe and a long lever. I see a young rat turn the lever to let out a white gel that fills up a canister below the pipe’s opening. The rat turns the lever back, and the flow stops. Another rat closes the canister and takes it to a crate, needing a ladder to reach the top of it.
I approach the rat watching some indicator, telling him when to turn the lever again and whisper, “Oi.”
The young rat, startled, turns to me. He looks so fragile at a close range. He wears only ragged slacks, revealing a chest and back with scars as well as his slender figure. He stutters, “Y-y-you… c-can’t… b-be here.”
I tell him lowly, “I came to ‘elp. I will tell that to the others above. Jus’ stay calm.”
“Aye, miss”, the rat says plainly, as if he’s in a trance unlike the second I captured his attention. My attention is caught a second later—
By a full-blown Symphonian-accented female voice speaking, “What’s oll this then?”
I swiftly turn around, to a dog in a business suit. I quickly draw my Khopesh with my left hand and the dog shouts, “Intru”-. She’s cut off by the blade slashing her throat as quickly as I draw it. However, I am too late to catch her body. All I can do is drag the limp dog behind the crate, muttering, “Bloody knob head” to myself. I then hurry to other machine releasing the substance, and I tell the two young rats stationed at it, “I’m ‘ere ter ‘elp. Sit tight whilst I inform the others. Be ready to run.” I get only a nod from each of them as an answer.

I slowly head to the stairs to the next floor, but slowly and with my eyes closed, to listen for footsteps of others nearby, but it’s hard to make out among the machines’ noises. On this floor, I find more rats, in unison, shovelling coals into a large fire. I’m too late again to avoid more noise as one of the young rats drops her shovel. I dash to hide behind the walls of the furnace. I whisper, “I’m ‘ere ter ‘elp. Jus’ keep doin’ what y-do. Be ready to run when I say.”
“And go where?” The same female rat asks me.
I whisper, “There is a group outside. They’ll get you far away from ‘ere.”
Another Symphonian-accented voice, this one male, barks, “Who said y-kin stop working?”
A voice of one of the two male rats begs, “We are trying, sir, but we are exhausted.”
The dog says coldly, “That’s not me problem. If I could make yeh sod off, I would.”
I hear the dog approach, by hearing him shove the mouse pups aside, and I end quickly draw my Khopesh, and I move to tackle him—
But he sees it coming, for he catches my arm. He then shouts, “Intruder! Sound the bell!” Another major cockup on my part. I quickly draw my right Khopesh, and manage to slash him upward from the midsection to the line of his collar bone, managing to stop him from drawing his gun. The second he loses grip of my left arm, I slash his throat with that Khopesh. I then quickly sheathe my blades, to toss the dog in the furnace.
I’m too late to do anything about the other guard on this floor, as he has reached the bell, which he madly rings. I still dash toward him, Khopeshes drawn, and I have him pinned to the floor before he can draw his gun. With both Khopeshes, I stab him in the chest. I growl at that everyone is now alert.
I still hurry to the other furnace—but there two dogs are, already waiting to find their intruder, and they need not search for long. The pair splits up, and I kneel before I sweep the one just facing me, with my leg, and I slash her throat. The other dog turns out to be a female as well, and she expects a fight, as she dodges a swipe of each of my blades. So, I leap aside and manage to slash her arm, making her lose grip of her gun, but she hastily draws a butcher knife as she backs away from another two swings of my Khopeshes. She then retaliates, dashing to me. Reflexively, I make a scissor motion, my blades gashing her midsection. I leap backwards, to avoid her falling body as well as her knife. I head up the stairs, the only way up—
And I am immediately met by gunfire. I do not know how many guns fire at once until I look up while crouching. I can try blocking the volleying bullets with my Khopeshes but that has far too much risk. There are four dogs, including the Great Gam that my target is. My choices of movement are far too limited. And all that the many rat pups and four kittens in rags at the mixers do is watch in horror, as if they expect pain upon hearing bullets fire.

I do not know how many bullets these dogs are willing to spend, but all guns simultaneously fire again. All I do is make a motion and they fire again. I leap toward the mixer of the side that I’m on. They open fire on me again, but I hear a Symphonian-accented voice call, “Stop! We can’t risk sullying the machines!” That is my only edge. It buys me a few seconds, for I hear a female bark, “I got ‘er!”
I see the female dog, a rottweiler in a suit of disgusting green, leap at me—
And I leap in turn, managing to drive my blades in her midsection before she can shoot me, but it drives the rest of the dogs to shoot at me, and I use the limp rottweiler, still having my Khopeshes in her midsection, and the bullets land in her, but the dogs fire at me again and again, making me wonder if any of those bullets can get through her, and kill me.
When I finally pull the blades out, I hold both Khopeshes in my right hand, and pick up the female rottweiler’s gun, but to eject its bullets and to throw at the dog on the other side, which he ducks from. On the dog that I approach next, knowing that he needs to reload, I gash across his chest in a reverse-scissor motion, which breaks his ribs. I tackle him down and, with my left Khopesh, I slash up his lower muzzle. There is another rottweiler, who has just reloaded his pistol. Before he can shoot, I use the hook of the blade to slash his forearm, and he drops the pistol. I then drive my Khopeshes in his midsection, getting the hooks on the ends of the blades on the ribs. With that leverage and a force made apparent by a bark, I shove him over the metal railing. When I finally catch up with the Great Gam—
He still has people to hide behind, for, to my rage and horror, he stands in front of me, with a skinny cat, whose matted pelt is brown and white with black stripes, and Samuels has his gun’s barrel pressed against the cat’s head. He tells me, “Drop those toys. Or this kitten’s death is on your conscience.”
“This is between you and me”, I growl lowly. “Fight me like the man you are.”
Samuels objects, “You seem t-forget who’s holding the gun, bitch.”
I retort, “I look at a coward using children fer ‘is dirty work. If you really want to kill a kitten, you can, but I came for you. Just. To kill you, Samuels. But if I don’t, you might get a new guard that envies you, and would want to betray you, simply to gain Giffard’s recognition.”
“A mind game? I expected better. This’s yer last warning: drop the swords and leave here, or this kitty dies.”
“What about the rest of them?” I speak, seeing that the other kitten and the rat pups have moved away from the mixer, and they all start biting and clawing at him, which is enough to distract him, and I shove the tabby past him, barking, “Run!” I then use my Khopesh to push his gun aside, followed by a kick, which makes him drop the pistol. The yellow-eyed grey-furred dog moves his cane to his right hand as he backs from my first slash, and then backs further, to avoid my second. He uses his cane to catch my Khopeshes in my scissor motion.
Samuels uses that moment to grab another pistol with his left hand from behind his brown tailcoat, barking, “Nice try, bitch!” That only makes me angry, for I make him turn around as I am not letting him cower behind the mixer. Our positions switch. I perform a series of light swipes as feints, stepping toward him as I do so, and my plan works, but he manages to parry my next strike that should be fatal. Samuels uses his cane to lift my Khopeshes by the hooks. All I need to is lift further, but to no avail. So, I butt his head, my mask being my edge there. I yank his cane down, so I can release my grip, and I continue to step toward him, let him think that I am an amateur with swords as I perform another series of thrusts as feints this time, and I give him no time to counter or aim. When reaching the opening leading to his office, I use a series of slashes. Getting his cane aside with my left Khopesh, I use my right Khopesh to slash his left forearm, making him lose grip of his pistol. Holding both the hilts and Samuels’s jacket, I push him to that open space, where the one window is, but that is not the choice that I stand by.
I perform three angled swipes before I kick his midsection. I seize this opportunity. First, in a scissor motion, I gash his throat, but I am not done. With growl built to a bark, I perform a reverse-scissor motion, and the body suddenly is limp. I reflexively leap backwards in time, as the head falls and rolls.
I watch the limp body fall forward, almost meeting Samuels’s severed head. The blood begins to drain and pool on the floorboards, and I take a long breath out my nostrils. I head to the office, searching the desk and cabinet until I find what I am looking for: letters from two of Giffard’s ring members. I put those in my inner breast pocket, along with a sample of opiate that I’ve picked up, threatening to burn in a hole.
I return to the body of Ross Samuels, to strip it, and cut a circle along his back and ribs. Then, holding it by the arms, I successfully shove it out the window. That done, I pick up his severed head. Everything has gone quiet with the mixers and the boilers now idle. Arm stretched out above the railing, I drop the severed dog head, and I barely hear a thump when it lands.
Returning to the ground level, I hear murmuring among a few individuals, and I end up meeting Dolan at the front gate. He says irritably, “I didn’t know yehr ‘ad a knack fer showmanship.”
Remaining cool, I ask the rottweiler, “So, where will yeh go in this? Will you claim this factory as your own?”
“Maybe”, he answers. “But I know I’m claimin’ the merchandise as my own. After all, opium is a potent explosive.” As if he knows something, he adds, “Don’ worry; we can isolate the children and get them over their possible addiction. After that, they can work fer me. Note this, as well: children make for brilliant informants.”
I pull out the sample that I’ve been keeping, and state, “I believe this was made here.” The rottweiler takes it, and then waves for one of his men to bring a case. Another dog hands him a paper parcel, which he opens with his teeth as well as he does to the case. He sniffs the sample, and then the drug in the factory’s case.
“They match perfectly”, Dolan states. “You also have Samuels’s agents for whom to account. You can find them anywhere here in Ashcrown.”
“Just give me their names and species, and I can locate them.”
 



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